A Dangerous Urge. Jane McChrystal.


In his essay Blood in the Matzos, Anthony Burgess called our need to classify art “a dangerous urge”.  While my attempt to frame Georgiana Houghton, Nineteenth Century maker of spirit drawings as “outsider artist” proved inconclusive, it didn’t seem all that risky.  Burgess viewed the classifying urge as innate, but I believe people yield to it under the pressure to build careers, make money and forge reputations.

Art movements often cohere around shared ideas associated with a particular place and time, whose practitioners identify themselves as members.  In the early Twentieth Century, for example, the Futurists in Milan and Vorticists in London came together to publish manifestos announcing their intention to tear down everything old and replace it with the new.

Outsider artists tend to be lone individuals taken up by art insiders and “sold” to the establishment for their individuality and inventiveness.  Symptoms of psychosis and aspergers-like conditions can be the source of this originality.  Some outsider artists, regarded as marginal or highly eccentric, can attract the attention of members of the art establishment who harbour voyeuristic urges.

The relationship between art champion and outsider artist is, then, ripe with the potential for exploitation, even when founded on the very best intentions.

The champion sees what is strange or startling in their protégé’s work and promotes it to the art world on this basis.  If recognition follows, maybe the artist will feel appreciated for the first time in their life, unaware that the work is valued more for its oddity than their artistry.

The artist might also reveal some of the most intimate and troubling aspects of their interior world, with little insight into how others might perceive them as a result.  Looking at work which depicts personal histories of abuse or conveys a terrible sense of claustrophobia induced by obsessive attention to detail or repetition of a narrow range of themes, can feel very uncomfortable, especially if we have no idea of the effect the artist intended to create.  Have we been invited to a freak show or a display of art?

Jean-Michel Basquiat has been described as the greatest outsider artist of the Twentieth Century.  Starting out as a street graffiti artist, he became a star of the 1980’s New York scene for his paintings of black men as heroes, who triumph through intellectual activity, rather than the more stereotypical pursuits such as sport.  This is frequently achieved through portraying the head with no body and spelling out gnomic words on the canvas.  The work also drew on his interpretation of a wide range of classical references gleaned from his informal education under artists such as the Italian Neo Expressionist, Sandro Chia.

Basquiat’s early life was fractured by loss and familial disruption and he was on the streets by the time he was 15.  His introduction to the New York art world was made by the critic Rene Ricard.  Larry Gargosian exhibited his work and Bruno Bischofberger sold it.  Already in the grip of a heroin addiction, he fuelled it by turning out as many paintings as he could for collectors eager to buy anything from the latest art sensation.  He died of an overdose in 1988 at the age of 27.

It could be said that any successful artist will come under intense pressure once they engage with the major players of the art world

Like any artist, Basquiat needed other established artists to foster his development.  He needed a critic to bring his work to the attention of the art world, a gallerist to put it on show, a dealer to sell it and collectors hungry to acquire it.  They all needed him to keep on producing work to criticise, exhibit, sell and collect.

However, I think his outsider artist status made his involvement in the art world especially problematic: as a black man with roots in street art, his heroin addiction might have appeared part of his cachet, rather than a potentially fatal condition.  It is notable that it became completely out of control after the death of Andy Warhol, usually seen as the arch exploiter, who was a good friend and had tried hard to help him manage his use.

At first sight, Burgess’s diagnosis of the need to classify art as a “dangerous urge” might look far-fetched.  In Basquiat’s case it begins to seem more plausible.  He was the archetypal outsider artist: original, exotic and with no ties to a particular group which might have provided protection.  Qualities which made him so compelling to the 1980’s New York art scene, also exposed him to all its dangers.

Jane McChrystal © 2016.

Mitchell Crew - Jean-Michel Basquiat - WikiArt.org - encyclopedia of visual arts

Mitchell Crew – Jean-Michel Basquiat – WikiArt.org – encyclopedia of visual arts